The Enemy Within
This past week-end my wife and I saw the movie “Selma”. It continues days later to vibrate in my head. Watching that terrible legacy of disenfranchisement and brutalization reminded me of other systematic stories of terror and violent mistreatment, directed towards the Jews, or the Armenians, or gay people. Even here in New York, this most cosmopolitan of cities, we require constant vigilance against prejudice. And when it comes to housing, that vigilance often starts with us, the agents.
Discrimination, especially in the co-op market, felt commonplace during my early years in the business. Some buildings, I was told by colleagues, did not accept Jews. Certainly the openly gay were shunned everywhere. Single women were also often personae non grata – as I was told, no one knew whom they might marry! As for other minority groups, the issue rarely arose. Surely, the prevailing wisdom went, no one of such different ethnicity or background could reasonably aspire to life on Park or Fifth Avenue!
From the first I dedicated myself to breaking those boundaries, as did many of my colleagues. It became a point of pride for us to override the specific instructions of landlords wanting to define exactly to whom they would rent, or to demonstrate that we could construct almost foolproof Board packages that made Board turndowns for illegal reasons very difficult. Not impossible, of course, but very difficult. When I was told, as I was on a number of occasions, that in this building or that building Jews could sell to other Jews, but the building did not want to “tip the scales” by permitting other sorts of sales, I took that as a challenge. And along the way, I learned that sometimes agents were the worst gatekeepers of all – since they did not want deal trouble, they were reluctant to challenge the status quo.
Today, the fair housing laws and the changing demographics of city life have made these problems far less great. Gay couples are welcome in rentals and co-ops all over town. Single women, after a couple of law suits in which co-op Boards were roundly called out for their attitudes, buy without too much danger. And members of ethnic minorities have access everywhere, perhaps at least in part because prejudice against a strong candidate with a different skin color is so obvious. Some of our proudest moments in the business at Warburg have involved ushering such candidates into their new homes on Fifth Avenue or Central Park West.
But prejudice still exists, at least in part because some landlords and many co-op Board members are not aware that the fair housing laws apply to them as well, private ownership or no private ownership. Occurrences like the one we saw a couple of years ago in which a prospective purchaser was asked by a Board member if he was “the kind of Jew who has to walk upstairs on Saturdays” are less frequent, but they still take place.
We the agents who represent these properties have both a legal and a moral obligation to stem this tide whenever we see it threaten to break through. Our vigilance in protecting the rights of everyone who wishes to see, rent, and/or purchase our properties should be unremitting. Indifference or passivity can be as insidious in fostering intolerance as more overt behavior. While many agents see parts of the fair housing laws as unnecessarily limiting (it is for example utterly ridiculous that agents cannot utter the word “family” when showing property for fear it might offend single people!) there can be no denying that the stringency of our metropolitan housing code has made it much harder for landlords and co-ops alike to choose the sex, orientation, color, creed, or marital status of those who apply to live in their buildings. That can only be a good thing for the city and for us as its citizens.